Whenever people tell me a TV show has gotten better, I’m skeptical. Here’s the thing: EVERY TV show gets better from its pilot. There are literally only two or three shows in the history of the medium that started out with a pilot and then just got worse from there. TV shows are organic creations, and as they stay on the air, they grow and change. Casts get to know each other and build better chemistry. The writers figure out how to play to the actors’ strengths. Directors find ways to get through episodes as efficiently as possible. A lot of shows just restate their pilot for all time, but practice almost always makes perfect. An F show will eventually become a D show, and so on, right up the line. It’s just the way the medium works. In some ways, it’s better to have a shitty pilot than a good one. The latter leaves you far too much to live up to.
This week, I’m looking at two shows I’ve had people bugging me about getting much, much better since the pilot. One is Raising Hope. The other is Outsourced. Now, granted, I’ve watched every Raising Hope so far, and most Outsourced episodes so far, so I’ve been able to watch what these shows are doing to try to accelerate their improvement. And while I still think Raising Hope takes the lazy way out with some of its humor, I think it’s improving rapidly enough that I feel no problem setting a season pass for the show. Creator Greg Garcia’s a real pro, and he’s figured out how to craft a fairly amusing, sweetly enjoyable half hour of TV. It helps that this is a show that looks like no other comedy on TV right now. Look at the muted colors and subtle rhythms of that long-shot of Jimmy carrying Sabrina home in costume in front of the toilet-papered tree. It’s a striking image, and it becomes sweet with the emotional content going on right in front of it. (Outsourced, well … we’ll get to that on Thursday.)
Raising Hope has rapidly become Fox’s big hope for the fall season. It’s the only new show the network has picked up to a full season order, though its ratings are far from spectacular (or, really, all that solid). Lone Star was an out of the box bomb, and Running Wilde hasn’t been able to hold on to even the tiny audience Raising Hope has. Plus, Raising Hope has its critical champions and holds on to just enough of Glee’s young audience to make it seem like it has room to grow. Where most new shows have been plummeting week to week, Raising Hope has hung on to a small but seemingly loyal audience. And the show has rewarded that audience, I’d say. Each episode has steadily gotten a little better (until tonight’s second half-hour, which we’ll get to in a second). The show is figuring out a better way to balance its “Ha, ha, laugh at the dumb hicks!” laughs and its “Ha, ha, dumbasses put babies in danger!” laughs with its genuinely sweet character moments. it’s a tough trick to pull off, and the show still hasn’t mastered it, but it’s well on its way.
The first half-hour tonight shows off perfectly what I’m coming to love about this show but also what still doesn’t work on it. I still think Lucas Neff is a bit too much of a cipher to hold the center of this show, but he’s coming into his own. The scenes where he’s caring for Sabrina or where he’s calling his friends about taking good care of the baby are nicely understated. Furthermore, the chemistry between the cast members is really starting to crackle, and the emotional core of every episode is pulled off in just the right fashion. Take the plot about how Jimmy’s dad (Garrett Dillahunt, who’s quietly turning in Emmy-worthy work) used to scare his young son, the better to get a nice, tight man hug. It should be stupid on its face – and the way it all pays off is vaguely terrible – but the emotional core, two men who love each other but aren’t sure how to express that, is present. You’ve seen this before, but the writers and actors are putting new shades on an old story.
That sense of the cast coming together extends to Martha Plimpton as Jimmy’s mom and Shannon Woodward as Sabrina. Garcia has a fondness for women who hide a whip-smart sense of humor under a redneck exterior, and he uses it to its fullest with both of these characters. I mean, yes, it’s horribly, horribly predictable that when Sabrina kisses Jimmy, it’s because she thinks he’s her boyfriend (since both were wearing Batman costumes), but there’s a giddy joy to the way she lures Jimmy out onto the dance floor that suggests a show that’s realizing, perhaps a little too late but realizing nonetheless, that these people are a lot of fun to hang out with. So long as the show keeps this emotional core of the family having a kind of love that needn’t be spoken, I can handle some of its crueler, darker gags.
That said, the show still hasn’t quite mastered the art of being consistently FUNNY. I realize that humor is all in the eye of the beholder, but there’s absolutely nothing unexpected about any of the gags in the Halloween episode. Grandma is still the wacky old lady who does inappropriate things, and the plot where she wants to go trick or treating is a panoply of embarrassing, “Isn’t it cute when old people act like they’re younger?” moments. Too many of the gags still revolve around people having NO IDEA what to do with a BABY, despite the fact that many of the show’s best scenes feature Jimmy or a random family member monologuing to baby Hope. (Tonight’s example? Jimmy’s friends eating Hope’s baby food and then trying to feed her chips.) And the show still has weird, tonal shifts that don’t wholly work, as evidenced in the second half-hour, which featured a lengthy segment where a woman died after hitting her head on a cement duck, similar to the pilot’s moments where Hope’s mother died in the electric chair.
The second half-hour, actually, almost feels like an episode that was produced out of order. It delves into Jimmy’s family tree in a way that feels perhaps too over-explanatory. (Did we really need to know why Maw-Maw raised her granddaughter? Was this a deep, burning question?) Some of the nastiness of the pilot was still in evidence, where the show has been getting more confident in its use of sentimentality in the weeks since the debut. The jokes about how stupid the central family is were back in full force, mostly for convenience’s sake (Jimmy seriously doesn’t know that much about the Internet?). And the plotting was kind of a mess, featuring Jimmy digging into his family tree for Hope’s benefit but not a whole lot else. Sure, there were good scenes here and there, but this felt like an episode held back because everybody realized it was a dud.
That said, Raising Hope is slowly but surely finding its way. It’s the best possible example of a show figuring out where it’s going in its first full season. It’s not a show I love or even like all that much just yet, but the slow and steady improvement gives me reason to believe there’s more there than I gave this show credit for in the first place. Maybe by the end of the season, the show will have finally found a groove that makes it work as well as it could. Until then, though, it will be interesting to watch the producers put all of the pieces in place.
“Happy Halloween”: B
“Family Secrets”: C-
- Any interest in this show getting added? Wouldn’t be until January, likely, but if enough of you are watching, we can probably find someone to write about it.
- "Jimmy, I been eggin' houses with 12-year-olds all night. You think there's any possible way I'm sober?"
- "Ask me where the beef is."